Big Incentive for School Attendance: Cash

Elisa Crouch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 2010

Stacey Wright had more than a dozen choices when it came to enrolling three of her children in an elementary school, from charters to magnets to traditional public schools in every corner of the city.

She chose Jefferson Elementary School, the brick St. Louis public school across the street. And for that, she may get $900.

For the first time, a local organization is offering parents a cash incentive to enroll their children at Jefferson. The money is limited to students who didn’t attend the school last year. To get it, the kids must finish this semester with near-perfect attendance and receive no out-of-school suspensions; the parent must attend three PTO meetings. The program is being offered to families in three mixed-income housing complexes surrounding the school, where most of the students live.

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Paying families for their children’s behavior and attendance is part of an ongoing debate in a half dozen cities. Kids themselves also have been paid for everything from grades on tests to the number of books they read. A Harvard University study in July showed that such incentives improve classroom behavior–but they don’t necessarily raise test scores. {snip}

Proponents say the cash rewards are no different from offering college scholarships to top achievers at a high school, and that low-income families need the extra help. Critics counter that the cash prizes fail to address problems that lead to truancy and poor test scores, such as bad teaching or a dull curriculum.

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At Jefferson Elementary, the $300 incentive per child is offered by Urban Strategies, a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis. For years, it has partnered with McCormack Baron Ragan Management, the development company that manages Murphy Park, The Brewery and O’Fallon, the three housing complexes surrounding the school.

In 1998, Urban Strategies raised money for renovations at Jefferson. This year, it’s paying to train teachers in how to conduct at-home visits. The organization is offering $250 to the four teachers at Jefferson who make the most of them.

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Earlier this month, parents got letters informing them that the school fell short of annual progress goals in the Missouri Assessment Program. Less than 15 percent of students passed the reading and math sections on last year’s statewide test. The letter offered parents the option of transferring to other schools in the district.

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Rewards in schools are nothing new. Suburban districts for years have offered pizza coupons, tickets to amusement parks and baseball games for those who make the honor roll or read a certain number of books over the summer.

In St. Louis Public Schools, the district has rewarded kids who attend the first day of school by entering them in drawings for tickets to sporting events. Until recently, Maritz Inc., the motivational and corporate travel company in Fenton, gave students at school the first week chances to win a big screen television, stereo equipment, T-shirts and rulers.

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[Jefferson Elementary School of St. Louis, Missouri, is listed as being 100% black, as shown at its Public School Profile here.]

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